James T. Gregory dedication, ceremony slated for July 15

Published 5:31 pm Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The building that currently houses the Butler County Board of Education has a richer history than some may think. 

A handful of dedicated locals are hoping to remind the county of that fact next month.

The current Board of Education building was previously known as James T. Gregory Elementary School, which is where African American students received an education prior to the integration of Butler County’s schools.

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And though the school proved a strong foundation for a sizable number of students during the pre-integration era of education, its history—as well as that of many others—has been quietly eroded by the sands of time.

But that history will be front and center on July 15 during a commemorative event honoring the life of James T. Gregory and the school bearing his namesake.

According to Butler County Board of Education member Linda Hamilton, the idea originated with Kenneth Crum, a product of James T. Gregory Elementary School and, eventually, the integrated Butler County School System.

“Mr. Crum, upon revisiting the place where he went to elementary school, got the idea that ‘wow, there’s really nothing that says James T. Gregory.  Now it’s the Board of Education,’” Hamilton said.

Prior to Crum approaching her with an idea, she had already begun initiating fundraising projects to help restore and preserve a number of schools littering rural communities outside of Greenville, including Southside High School (currently the boardroom for the Board of Education), the school she graduated from.

“In trying to renovate and preserve that building, I discovered there was nothing from the Butler County Colored Public Schools that had been retained back in 1970-71,” she added. “Not a trophy.  Not a yearbook.  Not a ribbon.  Other than a few records, everything else had been thrown out.

“And so with that, I had begun to look for ways to reconstruct that history.  And when the classes of Greenville Training School had their last reunion here a few years ago, I spoke with them about the need for funds to help preserve whatever is left of Butler County Colored Schools. And all of the country schools, because there are many schools out here in the country.  All of these schools are falling in, and there is no preservation of what those schools meant to people and how they educated people and how they taught kids manners.  I just wanted to try to preserve as much of that as possible.”

That, Hamilton said, is where Crum came in with an idea. 

He would commission a physical reminder in the form of a relief of James T. Gregory that would endure alongside the building itself, with a little help from renowned artist Ronald McDowell.

McDowell’s work has been featured all over the world in places such as the New York World Festival, the Atlanta-based Martin Luther King Center, the Essence Festival of New Orleans and the Ebony Museum in Oakland.

“This all started with wanting to not let us be written out of history—this part of our history,” Crum said. “That was our foundation.  We had teachers, administrators, students and parents who sacrificed during that time to make sure that we got a quality education.  A lot of those educators came from Alabama State, Alabama A&M and Tuskegee, and we were getting a quality education during that time. For me, I know, that was my foundation.  I’ve never forgotten what we learned during that time.

“A lot of the teachers were there in our neighborhoods.  They taught generations of us.  It was that that really propelled us to go on, no matter what endeavor we ventured into in our lives.  We were productive citizens and productive individuals, and a lot of it came from the education that we got at James T. Gregory.   I didn’t want that to be as though it never existed.”

For Crum, the education received pre and post-integration was largely the same, with some of the same educators playing key roles. But it was a vastly different experience because it was shared with all-new classmates, and in an all-new setting.

The adjustment would’ve been a tough one even in a vacuum, but when taking into account the political upheaval happening across the nation, matters grew even more tense.

Fortunately, Crum said he recalls no such incidences in Butler County that other schools around the nation experienced, including the tumultuous events that occurred in Little Rock, Ark.

“We didn’t experience things like that,” Crum said. “Prior to the integration, though, I can remember not being able to cross a certain street to go to another side of town.”

Hamilton said that few occasions were as worthy to be celebrated, as James T. Gregory and other small schools she remembered fondly did so much with so little.

“Considering their resources, all of these schools did a phenomenal job in holistically educating students,” she said.

“Before kids were brought to the city to be educated—colored children—they were in little community schools out in rural areas.  It was a one-room schoolhouse and you went from first grade to sixth grade, and that was it. All classes were in one room, just like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’

“A lot of times the schools only went to the sixth or seventh grade, but guess what? They had manners. They had respect. And they carried themselves with dignity and class.

The event will feature a very special guest of honor in Genetta Jordan, Gregory’s 90-year-old granddaughter.

“She is so excited,” Crum said.  “I called her and told her what we were going to do in honoring her grandfather. I asked her permission to do it, and she is so, so happy.”

Honoring the legacy of Gregory and others like him is paramount, for Crum.  But it’s equally about making sure that the legacy carries on.

“This is a well-respected person, Mr. Gregory, and the experience of that time in our history is very important,” Crum said. “If we don’t acknowledge and chronicle it, and do our part… if we don’t make this important, no one will.”

The ceremony will begin on July 15 at 6 p.m. from the Butler County Board of Education cafeteria, and the dedication will follow at 7 p.m. in the lobby.

For more information, contact Crum at 404-242-4223 or Hamilton at 334-368-2019.